Sometimes when Robin Bolster-Grant is driving down a road in Santa Cruz County’s unincorporated area, she’ll a get a strong whiff of fresh skunk-like aroma—the unmistakable scent of cannabis—and can’t help asking herself if the grows she’s smelling are legit.
“These issues were never going to be easy,” Bolster-Grant, the county’s cannabis licensing official, says of the regulations which the Board of Supervisors is expected to finalize on Tuesday, May 8. It’s one thing, she explains, to develop a regulatory framework, “even in a place as liberal as Santa Cruz.”
“But,” Bolster-Grant adds, “having a pot farm in your neighborhood is real.”
Given that the coming cannabis rules will take effect June 8, everyone is soon going to see if and how the new licensing program and local laws work in the real world.
Many neighbors wanted to see the plant regulated the same way any other form of agriculture would be—especially given cannabis’ odor and other impacts (like reggae music and watching Seth Rogen movies with the volume turned way too loud, probably). And in a lot of ways, it makes sense, since cultivators often say they wanted to be taken seriously, like a real industry. What could possibly be more legitimate than getting placed on par with a commercial tomato- or lettuce-growing operation?
The problem is that if you crack down on growers too hard, you disincentivize pretty much everyone from coming out of the black market—including growers that have been following every medical cannabis guideline for years. A thriving black market would undermine the entire point of legalization and could conceivably create more problems for neighbors, too.
Bolster-Grant says planners tried to find a middle ground, but she has still seen how difficult it’s been for some cultivators to pivot in the newly legalized world.
“There are a lot of forces that argue against coming out of the black market because you’ve always done things differently,” she says. “Maybe you don’t have all the money to come out of the dark. It’s also a culture shift. ‘Wait, what’s a permit? I have to go to the planning department?’”
Bolster-Grant says she doesn’t worry about the little grows that go unnoticed or the small-time hobbyist cultivators sharing a little herb with their friends. The county, she says, is focused on the bigger neighborhood impacts.
She adds that if the rules end up being devastating to either growers or the environment, county planners and supervisors will “take another look.”
Bolster-Grant has heard the concerns that code enforcement won’t have the muscle to take on anyone who refuses to play by the rules. But she says that with the resources the county is adding to the sheriff’s office, the district attorney and county counsel should help tremendously when it comes to pulling bad weeds.
Even without all that backup, the county has already managed to put two people in jail for growing in the past, via code enforcement, Bolster-Grant says. And when that fails, ripping plants out of the ground is a pretty effective method as well.
“If your whole business is growing 1,000 pot plants,” she says, “that’s going to hurt.”